February’s reviews

Two months in a row and sticking to my resolution to keep up with fiction reading. Yay me.

Let’s ignore that it’s already March and I didn’t notice or remember to hit post… and that I only finished two books in February.

***

This Golden Flame by Emily Victoria

ARC from Netgalley

This Golden Flame is an excellent debut novel that blends humanity, machine and magic. Essentially, a group of characters – with slightly different agendas – is thrown together by happenstance. They unite to take down a corrupt leader.

Through Alix, an automaton, Victoria explores what defines a person in a manner that is accessible and interesting. Alix’s existential crisis reflects the human condition and will resonate with the novel’s target YA audience.

Victoria refreshingly avoids romantic entanglements between the narrators, Alix and Karis. The book passes the Bechdel test with top marks! I didn’t pick up that Alix and Karis are depicted as asexual until after I’d completed the book, when I read more about the it. Frankly, it works whichever way the reader interprets the characters. Equally pleasing was Victoria’s matter-of-fact approach to inclusion and representation. Different cultures, faiths (if scriptwork is imagined that way), classes, sexualities and genders are effectively woven together as part of the characterisation and the plot.

The dual narrative was tricky… The voices of Alix and Karis aren’t distinctly different so the split first-person narrative seems unnecessary. Maybe this was deliberate – showing how Karis is different to other people and how similar Alix is to her? But then it feels like the narration often focuses on internalisation and perhaps misses the chance to depict Tallis and Valitia more convincingly. Victoria is clearly a skilled writer and I’d have enjoyed more time with her world building. Moreover, the book feels like it has three protagonists: Alix, Karis and Dane. Despite this, only two narrative perspectives are included.

Really, that’s my only gripe. Unless you count wishing it was longer so I could find out more about Zara and her crew! There was so much to enjoy about This Golden Flame. I look forward to Victoria’s future work.

Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

***

The Supreme Lie by Geraldine McCaughrean

I love this book cover. Also ARC from Netgalley.

McCaughrean writes across the spectrum, for children, teens, young adults and those of us who no longer belong in this category; it’s one of the many reasons I admire her as a seasoned and skilled writer. The Supreme Lie fits comfortably somewhere within the YA bracket. In terms of genre, however, I’m at a loss. Drama, certainly, with splashes of fantasy, dystopia, political intrigue and adventure. It feels art deco in period but simultaneously very modern. I’ve found this with McCaughrean in the past – she frequently straddles genres and styles with impressive grace.

In essence, the country’s leader ‘does a bunk’ when unprecedented floods bring chaos to a region. To hide the leader’s cowardice, her husband hatches a plot to pretend the leader is still present by dressing up the 15 year old maid, Gloria. As you can imagine, the situation gets pretty fraught. It’s quite Shakespearean – think Twelfth Night or Measure for Measure.

Having read other reviews – after finishing the book – I can see some readers have criticised McCaughrean for being a little bizarre or far-fetched. First, the bizarre is a characteristic I always enjoy in McCaughrean’s work. In The Supreme Lie, we are often treated to the perspective of Heinz, a loyal dog. His adventure, trials and worries during the flood are expressed through his internal monologue. It’s beautiful – not bizarre – to see canine loyalty given so much page. In terms of being far-fetched… pffft. I’d argue that having watched the last American administration coupled with having experienced the handling of 2020-2021 (stares hard at 10 Downing Street), McCaughrean has sculptured a plausible political landscape. Scheming public servants, environmental crisis, mass media scare-mongering, biased news reporting, power grabbiness and dis/mis-information: what’s far-fetched about that?!

Overall, it’s funny and dark. Often, for young people such as Gloria, the solutions to real world issues appear simple. McCaughrean illuminates that this isn’t the case but that decisions made with a strong moral compass will always be preferable to those steered by corruption.

Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Even more books, glorious books (might as well make the most of the lockdown)…

Book: “The overdue life of Amy Byler”
Author: Kelly Harms
Source: Amazon Kindle and Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: Byler is readjusting her life following a cheating husband, her return to the workforce and an overdue existential crisis.
Positives: it’s charming. There’s enough in it that I can empathise with and the characters are not flat. An easy read.
Negatives: chick-lit just isn’t my genre. Some of it is a little trite, predictable and saccharine.

Book: “Diary of a confused feminist”
Author: Kate Weston
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Kat is writing a diary to help her to do “good feminism.” It’s a cathartic coming of age story.
Positives: honest insight into the lives of young women. It’s effortlessly inclusive, which is refreshing. It raises some big issues but handles them well to avoid lecturing the reader.
Negatives: it’s slow to start and it took me a while to like Kat (Weston might have done this on purpose). Some of the humour was a miss for me but I’m unlikely to be its target audience.

Book: “Grief angels”
Author: David Owen
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: Owen has recently lost his father, Duncan has diagnosed depression, Lorenzo, Matt and Saeed are also dealing with issues, including relationships, confidence, grief, exams and body image. The book explores a group of boys as they navigate the route from adolescence to adulthood.
Positives: the fable-like narrative structure is clever, whipping the protagonist from this reality into a fantastical realm that evokes images of Greek mythology. It’s thoughtful and unyieldingly honest about grief; moreover, the characters are complex and realistic. Whilst there is growth and development, there’s none of that Hollywood-happy-ending that can damage authenticity.
Negatives: not everyone will get along with the to-and-fro of the narrative.

Book: “Last lesson”
Author: James Goodhand
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: I can’t really tell you without ruining it!
Positives: the writer is a genius. This book joins the ranks of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Atwood), “The Power” (Alderman) and “The Lord of the Flies” (Goldman) because they are all stories which echo and itch – refusing to leave my skull.
Negatives: …

Book: “Undertow”
Author: K.R. Conway
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖🖤🖤🖤🖤
Plot: Eila Walker inherits a mansion with a dark past around the same time that she finds out her own history and genetic makeup is unusual. Essentially, she is Lunaterra who don’t get along with Mortis and she’s discovered she’s in the middle of a centuries-old feud.
Positives: until the scene described below, I did like the protagonist and how she viewed and described the world around her. Whilst it was a plot-device, I did also like seeing an alternative family set-up (Eila lives with her mother’s best friend following the deaths of her parents).
Negatives: it’s pretty predictable for this genre. Likeable protagonist ✔ Range of sidekicks ✔ Forbidden love story ✔ Drip-drip-drip reveal of details ✔ Lots of money ✔ Parents / guardians conveniently out of the picture ✔ But it’s not the predictability that got my goat. I more annoyed about the handling of important real-life issues. For instance, “spazzed” is not an acceptable verb choice for how Eila’s heart reacts to her love interest and nor should I have to go into details about why. Moreover, when Eila is sexually assaulted, everyone (including Eila) brushes it under the carpet and blames the alcohol the young man consumed. Er, what?! “He has a low tolerance for beer” (so do I but I haven’t assaulted anyone whilst drunk); “he tripped and fell on me, and then got other ideas” (ideas that show he’s a sexual predator); “he’s not that type of guy” (he’s groping Eila without consent so he is that type of guy); and, from Eila, “I knew he was drunk and hopefully wouldn’t act like such a moron when he was sober, but the alcohol was clouding any decent judgement he had.” This last one is particularly grim. Eila’s character admits that she doesn’t know Teddy at all so how would she suppose that the alcohol was steering his behaviour? And I doubt, whilst fighting him off, mid-attack, that she would really concern herself with how he might behave when sober. The whole passage was irrelevant in terms of moving the plot on or developing characters so it seemed to only serve the purpose of justifying drunk jock behaviour, minimising the experience of victims of sexual assault. Not good in a YA book. After this passage, the whole novel was soured for me and I had no affinity with the author.

Book: “A court of thorns and roses” (Book 1)
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Feyre (pronounced Fey-ruh – cheers, Audible!) is a human who lives very near the boundary between the human and fae worlds. She is the sole provider for her starving family and when she shoots a wolf-that’s-not-a-wolf so that she can claim the rare doe they are both hunting, everything in her world unravels. She ends up in the fae world, prisoner in the Spring Court. Blah blah blah romance… blah blah blah mythical history… blah blah blah heroes and villains. Etc.!
Positives: Maas is able to create whole, intricate worlds – like Trudi Canavan and George R Martin – allowing me to get lost in them and slightly peeved when I have to leave them behind. I can predict small plot developments and twists but, on the whole, she’s adept at surprising me and imagining ideas beyond my scope. I am looking forward to reading more of the series and finding out more about the world beyond the wall.
Negatives: in a few ways, it’s quite similar to her other series, Throne of Glass. I suppose that’s not really a negative as one of those similarities is headstrong, independent, female protagonist. The problem with first-person narrative is that I can’t ever escape the romance. It would be nice to read a book where that isn’t a main thread or integral part of the plot.

More books, glorious books…

I’ve been reading when I should be studying. In my defence, norovirus + a cold + a series of migraines + a chesty cough have combined to kick my ass this last month. Reading is medicine.

Book: “Sadie”
Author: Courtney Summers
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: the story of a missing girl pieces together through an epistolary style narrative
Positives: characterisation, structure, genuine twists, the ending. It’s gut wrenching
Negatives: …

Book: “Gold the moon eater”
Author: I.M. Bones
Source: Netgalley ARC
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: a magic wielding demon is an assassin for the family business
Positives: Gold/Silas, the murderer, is a pretty good narrator in a twisted Dexter kind of fashion
Negatives: I didn’t really care about the other characters and the breaking of the 4th wall was predominantly clumsy and patronising

Book: “Poison orchids”
Author: Sarah A Denzil & Anni Taylor
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: two backpackers are rescued from something that’s left them bloodied and traumatised… but their stories don’t match
Positives: twisty and unpredictable with some brilliantly written characters
Negatives: occasionally too far fetched, hence the 4/5

Book: “Godsgrave” and “Darkdawn” (books 2 and 3 of the “Nevernight” Chronicles
Author: Jay Kristoff
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: tricky without giving anything away. Mia continues her journey to avenge her family and discovers more about herself along the way
Positives: blood, gore, sex, passion, magic, death, creatures, sarcasm, poison, sword play, swearing
Negatives: the fact it’s all over and I’m going to have to find something to cure the book hangover

Book: “Jane Anonymous”
Author: Laurie Faria Stolarz
Source: Netgalley ARC
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: a young woman, Jane, is kidnapped and held by a manipulative, game playing captor. When she escapes, she doesn’t truly escape
Positives: brilliant character study, exploring the impact of trauma. It took a long time to disentangle myself from the story
Negatives: some of the plot twists weren’t all that twisty but I think that was deliberate, anyway, so the reader is ahead of Jane

Book: “Belle Révolte”
Author: Linsey Miller
Source: Netgalley ARC
Rating: 💖💖🖤🖤🖤
Plot: set in a classist, misogynistic world with magic, two young women switch places to access education and end up embroiled in war
Positives: in many ways, it was a new, unique depiction of magic and Miller definitely paints the settings effectively
Negatives: really shallow character development so, despite flipflopping the narrative between the women, they felt and sounded like the same person. The plot was pretty flat until well over half way through. Overall, I’m grumpy because I loved the author’s last book (“Mask of Shadows”)